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When we conducted our inaugural environmental, social and governance (ESG) survey of private equity (PE) professionals last year, it was startling to see that nearly half (49%) of our general partner (GP) respondents did not have an ESG program at their firm and had no plans to create one, despite heightened concern from limited partners (LPs) on ESG issues. What a difference a year makes—not to mention the fact that we had a higher proportion of European respondents this year, who are much more progressive when it comes to ESG issues. In our second edition of the ESG survey, a majority of GP respondents (60%) now work at a firm with an established ESG program and another 26% either have an ESG program in development or plan to create one in the near future. However, there are still some PE firms that see little value in ESG programs. As one GP respondent put it: “we think [ESG] is the most asinine initiative ever to come out in the business world.”
While some PE firms eschew ESG issues and think that strong fund performance is enough to attract LP commitments, the LPs themselves are telling a different story. Eighty-four percent of LP respondents say that ESG issues are at least somewhat important when deciding whether or not to commit to a PE fund, with 18% claiming they are essential. Furthermore, 24% said they would they would commit to a fund with slightly lower historical performance if the firm had a strong ESG program. Remember, many of the largest contributors to PE funds are public pension plans, endowments, foundations and sovereign wealth funds—institutions which not only are interested in returns but also have an image to maintain. “GPs have to be more aware of investors’ desire for knowledge of their investments beyond just the financial return,” commented one LP respondent, while adding that the responsibility ultimately falls on the investors: “GPs will only change if the LPs push them to.”
One of the big takeaways from this year’s survey is that more PE firms are taking the necessary steps to make ESG a fundamental part of their investment approach. For example, 28% of GP respondents indicated that their firm produces a corporate social responsibility (CSR) report, up from 18% in 2012. And while finding effective metrics to monitor ESG performance continues to be the largest hurdle for ESG efforts, PE firms continue to find new ways to measure their ESG initiatives and have increasingly utilized forums, case studies and industry events and guidelines to fill the knowledge gap.
We hope that this survey serves as a lens into the current state of ESG issues in the PE industry and provides a starting point for developing a set of best practices that can be adopted by firms of all sizes. If you are interested in participating in future editions of the survey, or have any comments or suggestions for how we can improve this report, please contact us at email@example.com.